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Jordan Peele on Get Out, His Fears and Cultural Hope

Jordan Peele on Get Out, His Fears and Cultural Hope
From TIME - February 15, 2018

Director Jordan Peele, whose groundbreaking movie Get Out is nominated for four Oscars, spoke to TIME columnist Eddie S. Glaude Jr. about his film, his fears and his hope for American culture

Getting four Oscar nominations is a big deal. Youre only the fifth black director to be nominated in 90 years of academy history, and for a social thriller about race. How have you processed all of this?

Im trying. The only thing that makes it make sense is the realization that its bigger than me. Im inspired by the wonderful black directors that have come before me and realize that I can pay it forward. I am also proud to be a part of this renaissance happening in Hollywood. There used to be the view that black films couldnt sell overseas. Straight Outta Compton proved them wrong. It just feels great to be part of this moment in which directors who come from groups that have been marginalized by the industry in the past are getting opportunities.

You have that Oscar recognition, but then you have the misrecognition of the Golden Globes: you didnt get a Best Director nomination, and the film was nominated as a comedy, which upset a lot of people. Youve made light of it, but to my eyes and ears it says something about the moment. What do you make of it?

I am honored to have an international body recognize the film. And, you know, that my first film was celebrated by the HFPA and the Oscars is beyond my wildest dreams. As far as the question of genre, I actually like that the film doesnt fit easily into any one box. We knew we were creating a movie that defied categorization, so the fact that it continues to do so is pretty satisfying.

Theres a tendency among critics with a film like Get Out to run past the craft of filmmaking to the politics of the film. Youre really comfortable talking about the politics of the film. Thats clear. But talk about your aesthetic. What are your influences, and what do you want people to feel as they see?

You know, I wanted this film to have this combination of esoteric, refined imagery, and then a certain emotional richness to it. Certainly, I thought of it in terms of Kubrick and Spielberg. I thought of Alfred Hitchcock as being probably the master of beautiful refinement in the [horror] genre. And then there are moments of other maestros that Im pulling from. Cronenberg. There are David Lynchian moments. John Carpenter and Ang Lee. And theres a major relationship to Rosemarys Baby and The Stepford Wives. Many horror films go to the depths of dirty, seedy, filthy Gothic horror. Im much more drawn to films that explore a beautiful, disarmingly attractive aesthetic. Thats why I wanted to set the movie in this idyllic Northeastern-y home.

Youve said that every frame has to be beautiful. That really struck me, along with the lighting and the way you focused on facial expressions. How does your training in puppetry inform this?

Puppetry is basically another outlet to combine visual aesthetic and theatrical performance. When I went to college, I declared puppetry as a majorpartly because I was obsessed with puppets, but also because I didnt feel like I could fail at puppetry. Puppetry was a rare art form to see in any type of success, so I wasnt setting myself up for failure. Now, this was a liberal-arts education at Sarah Lawrence. I took a puppetry class, I took a sculpture class, I took acting, comedy classes. I also took philosophy, literature and psychology classes to give me this well-rounded perspective. And I fell in love with sketch and improv. That was when I realized that the most intricate puppet was something I was born withmy body, the natural puppet. If I could apply what I was learning about puppetry to myself, I might be coming at it from a unique perspective.

Flash forward to actually directing, and directing is just that. Its this huge collaborative, intricate puppet showI dont mean to suggest that performers are just puppets. On the contrary. I learned from puppetry that you have to listen to your puppets as much as they need to listen to you. You have to have a symbiotic relationship, you have to understand one another, because all youre really doing at the end is setting them up to blossom and to do what they do.

You have talked openly about your early childhood. Having to contend with this sense of being other, and then finally checking the box: black/African American. You felt the ground beneath your feet. When I watch your comedy or hear you talk about race, there is an organic feel you have with black culture. It doesnt appear to be the result of choice. You dont hear folks saying, like some did with President Obama, Hes trying a bit too hard. How did you navigate all of this as a child?

My education in what it means to be black in America came from growing up black in America. Popular culture helped me contextualize that in terms of how we are allowed to be seen. Films like Glory and Malcolm X inspired me on the reverent side. In Living Color inspired me on the irreverent side. I loved that show, because where most shows had a token black actor, this one had a token white one. I didnt quite catch the early Eddie Murphy on SNL, but his films influenced me as well. Aside from black people from around the neighborhood, I had a few black role models at church one of whom, artist Houston Conwill, was particularly cool.

But mostly I learned what my place was as an African American by how I was viewed and treated by otherswhen black kids at school told me I sounded white, or the time I was stopped by the police with my Nerf bow and arrow, I began to understand that I was expected to fit into a certain categorization.

My mother got it. She understood the importance of all of this. She encouraged me to explore that side of my identity.

You have said that the source of your attraction to horror movies is that you were a terrified child. So was I. But I was deathly afraid of my father. What was the source of your fear?

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